Sustainable design?

Just some musing this morning about sustainability. There are some fads out there right now in the design world, one is called prefabrication. The other is affordable design and build. Dwell magazine is filled with these two notions. I have thought about these notions over the years of building and designing of homes. I would like to just note some of my findings and thoughts.
The building and architectural professions have often viewed prefabrication as a way to bring innovative design to any location and in theory with economy. Most notably Ikea has exploited this notion and with huge results world wide.

“The IKEA Concept is based on offering a wide range of well designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them. Rather than selling expensive home furnishings that only a few can buy, the IKEA Concept makes it possible to serve the many by providing low-priced products that contribute to helping more people live a better life at home.

The IKEA Concept guides the way IKEA products are designed, manufactured, transported, sold and assembled. All of these factors contribute to transforming the IKEA Concept into a reality.” -IKEA Catalogue

Ikea has instilled this idea of design for the masses ( a modernist notion); however, one must look further than the glossy images in Ikea’s catalogs. One must cut through the veneer of an Ikea cabinet to begin to understand the full implication of their core material and I am not just talking about toxic, cheap, glue based particle board. The idea of affordable prefabrication is based on industrial method or factory work. I must propose a few questions as to factory work to get to the heart of the issue.

What are the implications of factory work in the modern day? What does factory work do to local economies, and do the products made in these factories fulfill sustainable standard. Lets keep with Ikea as an example to answer these questions. Ikea is able to create an affordable cabinet through using factory mass produced production method. The product is constructed not where we live but elsewhere. We never meet those who assemble these cabinets or see how they live. We never see what they use for materials, what the composite of the cabinet is made of or where any of materials come from. It probably just as well because it is not pretty process, nor are these products really happily made. China ,as we know, is primarily where most mass produced products come from. If the product does not directly come from China some part of it does like say the door hinges or the knobs or the glue. By fabricating cabinets elsewhere, the product may initially be cheaper , but they must still be transported, and transportation requires fuel. As we know, the burning of fossil fuel contributes to global warming.

The issue that the consumer is not addressing is what happens in our home town when we buy “cheap ” products from afar. Every time we buy an Ikea cabinet we are saying no to a local cabinetmaker. Every-time we say no to a local crafts-person we debase local craft and we insure that local craft dies off. Not only do we chose to lose this local craft, we are also saying no to local materials that would make this cabinet. In Maine we have woods, we have mills, and we have lumber yards, but not for long if we keep purchasing objects from afar. Our local economies depend on us to continue purchasing. When we harvest and use local materials, we are aware of two things: we see the woods being cut down and we see what the oblject is made of. In other words, we are ‘in touch’ with our resources or the diminishing of them. The problem with prefabrication is that we lose touch with the resources being consumed and the production of them.
When we use local resources we are in check with consumption, we are in check with over consumption, we are buying local or keeping our valuable economies alive, our local skill base alive. Furthermore, often these materials blend in to the surroundings, they are less likely to be alien to ‘place’ and often make sense environmentally. As an example when I built a home in Liberty Maine I had choices all along the way as to choosing local materials or materials from away.

For the beams I could have chosen para-lams which are essentially beams made out of glue and wood chip, or I could chose locally harvested and milled Hemlock. Through out the process of choosing I had to look at a variety of parameters….Strength, availability, cost, and sustainability. What I found is that Para-lam, because it is a corporally made material, has the ups and downs . Its ups are that it is engineered….or that it is rated and is consistent. It is easy for an engineer a structure or to plug numbers of loads values and get a final figure to know if the building will stand. The down side is that it is not local, the product has to be transported, and the company has a lot of overhead because of environmental standards it has to uphold….i.e. glues,glues, glues,…OSHA ,OSHA,OSHA (occupational safety and health administration), ceo’s also need to make buck too. This made this product expensive! And do I want building filled with more glue? So back to the local hemlock, I found a mill close by, and the owner would delivered the beams himself, plus it was two thirds the cost compared to the para-lam. In the end I used the Para-lam sparingly where I knew main carrying beams needed to be consistent (dimensionally,straight, without knots) and used the hemlock everywhere else. It is this sort of decision making that a designer/builder must embark on. There are products that are technological ones like thermal control units, windows, insulation which most likely are not made in ones home town and these must be ordered but there are also products that are local should be used if possible.

I think I will continue at another time with the affordable design build topic….I need to take a break
Oh yeah check out. a 20 minute video about choices …. consumer and factory http://www.storyofstuff.com/

and compare this to

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